written by david shields
originally published in The Rice paper newsletter, Fall 2009
In a comic character sketch by antebellum writer Johnson Jones Hooper, a quintessential southern bon vivant, “The Colonel,” attempts to persuade members of the Alabama legislature to move the state capital to Montgomery and not Wetumpka by circulating two bills of fare. That from the ‘Montgomery Hall’ read:
Boiled—Turkey, with oyster sauce.
Desert—Plumb-Pudding, Tarts, Pies, and Jellies.
Fruit—Oranges, Apples, Pineapples, Raisins, Al- monds, &c.
Wines—Champagne, Madeira, Sherry, &c., &c.
That from the ‘Wetumpka Hotel’ read:
Boiled—Bacon and Greens.
Entrees—Tripe and Cow-Heel.
Dessert—Fritters and Molasses.
Fruit—Persimmons, Chestnuts, Goobers.
Both the high style and common menus have their telling features. Montgomery Hall catered to southern gourmets’ obsession with oysters, inserting the bivalve in every dish before the dessert course, except roast pig. The Wetumpka Hotel offers a remarkable array of country fare. Neither bill features the glory of southern home cooking, the elaborate baked goods upon which hostesses and cooks staked their reputations. The wine lists betray the same penchant for fortified wines (except for the taste for champagne), not the clarets and white wines esteemed by later generations. Both menus contain items that have endured as staples of the southern table: turkey with oyster dressing, roast pig, bacon and greens, chitterlings, peanuts. Both feature dishes that have vanished from southern cuisine: oyster pie, fritters & molasses, dried persimmons. Why do dishes disappear from a community’s table? Why and how do pleasures vanish?
Sometimes the dishes cannot be made any longer because the ingredients have ceased to exist (the long grain version of Carolina Gold Rice), or are so endangered that they are protected by law (terrapins and rice birds). Other foods expire because of changes in the cost or availability of ingredients; rice bread, once a staple of Carolina tables ceased to be made when local rice was no longer commercially available, after 1912. Some dishes vanish because of changes of taste, as Black Malaga has done from the southern wine cellar, or pickled nasturtiums from the pantry. Other dishes no longer exist because they have transformed into something else. The benne and molasses candy treasured in the antebellum south became benne brittle, when cane sugar became cheaper toward the end of the 19th century. For whatever reason, a buffet table’s worth of southern dishes have passed away. Here I would like to image a banquet featuring the most evocative of these lost treasures, presenting a menu, and then discuss the particular merits of each course and dish in subsequent blog posts.
Benne Soup on Long Grain Carolina Gold
Boiled Rice Pea Pods In Vinaigrette
Broiled Rice Birds in Butter
Creole Fried Cucumbers and Stewed Salsify Virginia Style
Cymling Fritters and Okra Fritters
American Chestnut Pudding